A study on competency-based education in New Hampshire demonstrates that policy changes don't always result in uniform change on the ground, and technology isn't always ahead of schools.
In a May report
from the Clayton Christensen Institute, education research fellow Julia Freeland studied how competency-based education is changing in a state that's adopted the motto "live free or die."
The report, "From Policy to Practice," shows a variety of practices at different schools, an emphasis on personalized learning, technology infrastructure gaps, and increased state support for schools that are moving to competency-based learning.
Policy change results in a variety of practices
Back in 2005, the New Hampshire Education Department told schools to stop measuring student learning by time spent studying (the Carnegie Unit), and to start measuring it by whether students master skills and concepts, a process called competency-based learning.
Some of the key characteristics of competency-based education include allowing students to move on after demonstrating mastery, asking them to apply and create knowledge, and giving them differentiated support based on how they learn. They also provide meaningful assessments of competencies, which include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives, according to CompetencyWorks, a project led by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
Schools had three years to change their practices, but in this state, education is all about local control. Even though the policy was there, it didn't have any teeth, and no one enforced it. As a result, not every school actually moved to competency-based learning, or if they did, their level of implementation varied greatly.
Some give students extra periods to master the skills they're struggling with so they can catch up to the traditional pace of the class. Other schools give students flexibility to learn at their own pace, but still give them the same paper assessments they usually do. Still others have looked outside the box and allowed students the flexibility to create their own learning path, go at the pace they want to and demonstrate that they've mastered skills or concepts by applying their knowledge in the real world.
Schools unlock flexible learning pathways
Five of the 13 schools surveyed allow students to learn at their own pace. This personalized and flexible philosophy has helped bring Next Charter School, North Country Charter Academy, Milan Village Elementary School, and MC2 to the forefront of competency-based learning in New Hampshire.
An online math playlist at Milan Village Elementary School allows students to watch the videos at a speed that works for them. And students at North Country Charter Academy also stick to their own pace as they move through online courses.
These schools focus on not just knowledge, but application of what they're learning. For example, a final project in a social studies class at Next Charter School required students to write a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama that recommended foreign policy strategies in Syria. This project measured the competency that "students understand events and actions in the U.S. have impacted other countries." To do this, they needed to know what foreign policies had been enacted before, recommend their own policies and be able to justify them.
Ed tech infrastructure lags behind
Modern day technology infrastructure is not designed with competency-based learning in mind, Freeland said. While technology may typically leave schools in the dust, in this case, it's the technology that's way behind.
Learning management systems and student information systems were built on quarter or semester time frames, grades and common learning paths. That's why they don't support tracking student progress on competencies.
"Part of the benefit is that a student could take a different learning pathway than his peers to eventually master a competency, and that those competencies don't always have to be mastered in a fixed order," Freeland said. "And so if you think about how we traditionally track progress through a course sequentially, those tools are sort of going to frustrate your ability to be more flexible."
That's left schools to figure out how to bootstrap a technology platform to meet their needs. For example, Next Charter School is tracking student progress with 15 Excel worksheets per student in an elaborate process that Freeland said is "insane." It's challenging to do, and is not sustainable as teachers try to support students.
While there are some technology tools coming out, they're way behind where schools want to go. And they don't allow schools to show students the way forward. Rather, they show them how they did in the past. And that's backwards from what students need, Freeland said.
Students really need to look forward and see a roadmap of how to get where they need to go. And they also need transparency to see what they are and aren't learning on that path.
State support provides guidance for schools
Over the last five years, the state has been taking on the task of helping districts with their competency work. The Department of Education is providing technical assistance and creating recommended competencies that schools can choose to adopt.
With the creation of the Virtual Learning Academy in 2007, the state legislator gave students all over the state the opportunity to pursue competency-based, online education. And the academy is also making headway in aligning competencies to internship experiences.